Mecca the Mystic:
A New Kingdom within Arabia

By Dr. S. M. Zwemer

[The National Geographic Magazine, August 1917]

Of all the provinces of Arabia, El Hejaz, which recently revolted against Turkish rule and set up its own kingdom, with the Grand Sherif of Mecca as sovereign, undoubtedly has most frequent contact with the outside world, yet is the least known. Parts of it have never yet been explored.

El Hejaz is so named because it forms "the barrier" between Tehama, the coast province on the south, and Nejd in the interior. Its sole importance is due to the fact that it contains the two sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, which for more than thirteen centuries have been the centers of pilgrimage for the Moslem world.

Before the railway was completed from Damascus to Medina, the port of that city, Yenbo, was as flourishing as Jiddah is now; but at present it has almost the appearance of a deserted city. The whole pilgrim traffic has been diverted, and even the caravan route from the coast to Medina is at present unsafe. The importance of Mecca is not due to its resident population of perhaps 100,000, but to the more than 200,000 pilgrims who visit it each year from every nation of Islam. Statistics are hopelessly contradictory and confusing regarding the number of annual visitors. According to Turkish official estimates, in 1907 there were no less than 280,000 pilgrims. It is a marvel how so many thousands can find food, shelter, and, most of all, drink in such a desert city.

The religious capital of Islam, and now the temporal capital of the new Kingdom of Arabia, affords an index to the growth and strength of Mohammedanism in various parts of the world, for one can rightly gauge the strength of religious fervor in this great non-Christian faith by the number of those who go on pilgrimage. From Java, Bengal, West Africa, Cape Colony, and Russia, as well as from the most inaccessible provinces of China, they come every year and return to their native land—if they escape the hardships of travel—to tell of the greatness and glory of their faith, however much they may have been disappointed in the actual condition of the city and its sacred buildings.


When we consider Mecca, Mohammed's words of prophecy in the second chapter of his book seem to have been literally fulfilled: "So we have made you the center of the nations that you should bear witness to men." The old pagan pantheon has become the religious sanctuary and the goal of universal pilgrimage for one-seventh of the human race.

From Sierra Leone to Canton, and from Tobolsk to Cape Town, the faithful spread their prayer carpets, build their houses (in fulfillment of an important tradition; even their outhouses!), and bury their dead toward the meridian of Mecca. If the Old World could be viewed from an aeroplane, the observer would see concentric circles of living worshipers covering an ever-widening area, and one would also see vast areas of Moslem cemeteries with every grave dug toward the sacred city.

Mecca is no longer a veiled city. A score of intrepid travelers have unveiled it. From Bartema, Wild, and Joseph Pitts to Burton, Burckhardt, Hurgronje, and Courtellemont, they took their lives in their hands, herded with strange companions, underwent untold hardships, and by luck or pluck came scatheless out of this lion's den of Islam. According to Doughty, scarcely a pilgrimage takes place without some persons being put to death as intruding Christians. An educated and pious Moslem here in Cairo assured me only a few months ago that when he went on pilgrimage and took pictures of the city his life was endangered more than once by the fanaticism of the inhabitants. However, there are many who believe that the opening of the Hejaz Railway, especially as a branch is to be carried to Jiddah, the breaking up of Turkish power in Arabia, and the establishment of the new kingdom will mean the removal of restrictions against non-Moslems.

On a recent visit to .Jiddah, the port of Mecca, I was able not only to take some good photographs myself of that port of entry and learn particulars in regard to the pilgrim traffic, but I sent a telegram to Mecca to a leading Moslem photographer, whose establishment is not far from the Ka'aba itself, and received by registered post a number of beautiful photographs which I am glad to share with the readers of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE.

Jiddah is a town of about 50,000 inhabitants, of whom 100 are Europeans. It has only four leading mosques, but 30 inns, and one large enough to be called a hotel. None of them, however, is a fit place for the European tourist.


The only industry of Jiddah is fleecing pilgrims. Cisterns are kept near every house and filled with rain water, which is sold in the pilgrim season at a high price. At one time the governor of the Hejaz laid pipes from a spring of water 10 kilometers from the town, but when the pipes were worn out the people opposed the reconstruction of this public utility, as it interfered with their perquisite of water-selling. The Turkish Government itself receives as revenue from the pilgrims about $250,000 every year, and it is a well-known fact that the slave trade, both here and at Mecca, is still carried on. Many of the pilgrims from the Sudan and Somaliland do not scruple to sell even their own children in these slave markets!

The mixture of races in Hejaz province for so many centuries has not been conducive to morals or good government. No one who has read the account of social life at Mecca, as given by Hurgronje and other travelers, including Moslem pilgrims themselves, can doubt the need for social reform in this city. Mecca is the microcosm of Islam in its religious life and aspirations. According to Hurgronje, "It is Islam, the official religion, which brings together and amalgamates all the heterogeneous constituents of Meccan life. On the other hand, this society itself welds into a chaotic whole the prejudices and superstitions of all countries." In other words, Mecca is the sink-hole of Islam. All witnesses agree as to the flagrant immorality which pervaded the streets, and even the mosque, of the sacred city, the prevalence of the slave trade, the fleecing of pilgrims, and the corruption of the late Turkish Government.

The Turkish prison is an indication of the backward state of prison reform in this part of the world. The prisoners were kept in wooden stocks in dark rooms and there was no sanitation whatsoever, with the temperature in the shade often no degrees Fahrenheit. No food was provided by the government, and unless a man's friends or kindly charity intervened he was apt to die of starvation. All the machinery of government moved clumsily at so great a distance from the Sublime Porte.


Although there is a telegraph service between Mecca and Jiddah, the wires are often out of order, and most of the telegrams received during the pilgrim season fail to reach the addresses: The post office at Mecca under Turkish regime was certainly unique. A recent writer tells us how of the sacks of letters are thrown out into the narrow street leading to the post office and there sorted by the pilgrims themselves, who open them and take their letters and those of their friends also. A similar system prevailed at Medina, Yenbo, and Jiddah. All this may be changing under King Husein, who has already taken steps to join the International Postal Union and has had stamps printed in Egypt bearing the inscription "Hejaz Post."

The commerce of Mecca is entirely in the hands of foreigners, mostly Indians, who sell rosaries, carpets, and silk staffs. One of the main occupations of the silversmiths is the manufacture of rings, which are supposed to be constructed from silver that was once part of the sacred temple doors, and are reputed to be an effective remedy for certain ills. Most of the natives, however, earn their living as guides to the pilgrims and grow wealthy during the season. If each of the pilgrims spends $25, which is a low average, the aggregate income of the city would be $5,000,000; so one is not surprised to see a number of stately houses at Mecca and the display of considerable wealth.

The earliest settlements at Mecca were undoubtedly due to the fact that the caravan trade from South Arabia northward found here a stopping place near the spring of Zem Zem, long before the time of Mohammed, just as the early Roman settlements at Wiesbaden and other places in Germany were so located because of the medicinal waters.

The sacred mosque, Mesjid el Haram, with the Ka'aba as its center, is located in the middle of the city. Mecca lies in a hot, sandy valley, absolutely without verdure and surrounded by rocky, barren hills, destitute of trees or even shrubs. The valley is about 300 feet wide and 4,000 feet long and slopes toward the south. The Ka'aba, or House of God (Beit Allah}, is located in the bed of the valley. All the streets slope toward it, and it stands, as it were, in the pit of a theater.


The houses in Mecca are built of dark stone and are elevated in order to accommodate as many pilgrims as possible. The streets are nearly all unpaved. In the summer they are full of dust, and in the rainy season—-which, fortunately, is not frequent—they are black with mud.

Strangely enough, although the city is poorly provided with water except for the famous spring of Zem Zem, Mecca has suffered more than once from destructive floods, which, tearing down the narrow valley, have destroyed buildings and damaged even the Ka'aba. A terrible inundation took place on the 23d of Dhu'l Hajj, 1327 A. H. (1909). The water reached nearly to the door of the Ka'aba and the whole court was inundated.

The Ka'aba proper stands in an oblong space 250 paces long and 200 broad, surrounded by colonnades, which are used as schools and as a general meeting place for pilgrims. The outer inclosure has nineteen gates and six minarets; within the inclosure is the well of Zem Zem, the great pulpit, the staircase used to enter the Ka'aba door, which is high above the ground, and two small mosques called El Kubattain. The remainder of the space is occupied by pavements and gravel, where prayers are said by the four orthodox sects, each having its own allotted space.

In the southeast corner of the Ka-aba, about 5 feet from the ground, is the famous Black Stone, the oldest treasure of Mecca. The stone is a fragment resembling black volcanic rock, sprinkled with reddish crystals, and worn smooth by the touch of centuries. It was undoubtedly an aerolite and owes its reputation to its fall from the sky. Moslem historians do not deny that it was an object of worship before Islam. In Moslem tradition it is connected with the history of the patriarchs, beginning as far back as Adam.

The word Ka'aba signifies a cube, although the measurements, according to Ali Bey, one of the earliest writers who gives us a scientific account of the pilgrim ceremonies, do not justify its being called so. Its height is 34 feet 4 inches, and the four sides measure 38 feet 4 inches 37 feet 2 inches, 31 feet 7 inches, and 29 feet. The cloth covering is renewed every year. At present it is made of silk and cotton tissue woven at El Khurunfish, a factory in Cairo.

Formerly, we are told, the whole of the Koran was interwoven, into the Ka'aba covering. Now the inscription contains, the words, "Verily, the first house founded for mankind to worship in is that at Mecca, a blessing and a direction to all Christians." Seven other short chapters of the Koran are also woven into this tapestry, namely, the Chapter of the Cave, Miriam, Al Amran, Repentance, T. H., Y. S., and Tobarak.


The inscription over Bab es Safa is also from the Koran and reads as follows: "Verily, Es Safa and El Mirwa are among the signs of God. Whoever then maketh a pilgrimage to the temple or visiteth it shall not be blamed if they go round about them both." This gate leads out to the hills beyond the city where certain pilgrim rites are performed. Over the Mirwa gate there is (unless it has been removed by the new king) a small tablet in honor of the Sultan of Turkey, who erected it.

The Mahmal is an annual present of tapestries, gold specie, or other gifts sent by various Moslem countries to the Sherif of Mecca. The Ka'aba covering accompanies the Egyptian Mahmal.

Arriving within a short distance of Mecca, orthodox pilgrims, male and female, put off their ordinary clothing and assume the Hiram, which consists of two pieces of white cloth, one tied around the loins and the other thrown over the back. Sandals may be worn, but not shoes, and the head must be uncovered. After certain ablutions the pilgrim enters the mosque, kisses the Black Stone, and runs around the Ka'aba seven times. After special prayers he proceeds to the place of Abraham, then drinks from the holy well, and once more kisses the Black Stone. After this follows the race between the two hills, Safa and Mirwa.

Little books of ritual prayers to be used by the pilgrims are sold to every one, and there is great punctiliousness in observing every detail correctly. On the seventh day of the pilgrimage there is a sermon from the grand pulpit. On the eighth day the pilgrim goes to Mina, three miles distant from Mecca, and spends the night. The next morning he leaves for Arafat, another hill a short distance from Mecca, and the following day is the great day of sacrifice, simultaneously observed throughout the whole Moslem world. Early in the morning the pilgrims go to Mina, where there are three pillars, called the Great Devil, the Middle Pillar, and the First One. Here each pilgrim flings seven pebbles to show his hatred of Satan and his love for God. He then performs the sacrifice of a sheep, goat, or camel, according to his means, the victim being placed toward the Ka'aba and the knife plunged into the animal's throat with the cry, "Allahu Akbar." This ceremony concludes the pilgrimage proper.

After visiting Mecca most Moslems also go to Medina to visit the tomb of the Prophet. At present, because of the railway, many of them pay this visit first. The pilgrimage to Medina is called Ziyarat and that to Mecca Hajj. The latter is obligatory; the former meritorious.

The Prophet's mosque at Medina is about 420 feet long by 340 broad. It also is surrounded by a large courtyard and porticoes. The Hujrah, or place of the tomb, has four gates, which are carefully locked and guarded by eunuchs. Within the inclosure there are four graves and place for a fifth. Next to Mohammed himself lies Abu Bekr, his father-in-law; next to him Omar, founder of the imperial power of Islam, and a short distance away is the grave of the Prophet's beloved daughter, Fatima. Between Fatima's grave and that of Omar is a space left empty. According to Moslem tradition, it was the wish of Mohammed that this place should be reserved for Jesus on his second coming and death.

Between Medina and Mecca are some of the famous battle grounds of early Islamic days. On one of these the Battle of Ohod was fought, when the Koroish of Mecca, after their defeat at Bedr, overcame the Moslem army, and where Mohammed himself was seriously wounded. Hamza, a valiant warrior of Islam, lies buried here.


On the occasion of the anniversary of the proclamation of the constitution at Mecca, all the worthies take part in the ceremonies. Over the doorway of the building where the celebration takes place lanterns are hung to illuminate the Arabic inscription: "In liberty is the peace of the people and in fraternity is the bond of union."

The Turkish Government, however, was most unsuccessful in introducing liberty and reform in the province of Hejaz, as it has been in other portions of the empire. Their task, even had they made a conscientious effort, would have been especially difficult here because of the mutual hatred between Turks and Arabs, the restless character of the Bedouin population, and the utter collapse of all respect for authority after the Turkish defeat in the Balkan War. The Arabs have at last insisted upon ruling their sacred cities themselves and have placed the Grand Sherif of Mecca, El Husein Ibn Ali, on the temporal throne of the new kingdom, as well as upon the spiritual throne of the whole Moslem world, save that portion dominated by the Sultan of Turkey.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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